Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

Who wants a driverless car?—Wednesday, April 19th, 2017
Maximum Overdrive semi

Is this what self-driving cars mean?

There are a lot of people in the car-talk industry wondering what will happen when driverless cars are perfected. A lot of people looking back fondly on their own car ownership, and wondering why kids today don’t care so much about owning a car.

Shelia Dunn on the NMA blog asked, “do you want a driverless car?

I’m not a control freak by any means but I bristle when I read that the driverless car is inevitable—a foregone conclusion. Is it just me or does anyone else feel like that the driverless car is being crammed down our throats at a break-neck pace by over-zealous techies who think that the driverless car is really cool, so we must all want one too?

I agree with Dunn that the current push for driverless cars is an artificial one. It may actually delay their acceptance, especially if the driverless cars pushed on us aren’t as safe as they need to be. I especially think that most people probably don’t want their own car to be driverless.

But think about the steps toward the driverless car. Think about all of your friends who hate parallel parking. Think about all the parallel parking spaces you’ve seen that were big enough for your car, but too small to ease into. A driverless car that works would be able to park in those spaces, spaces you would never be able to park yourself.

And what about taxi service? Would you prefer your taxi to be driven by a human or by a reliable computer? If you had the choice in some future city, which would you choose? Personally, I’d prefer to drive my own car, but I’d definitely prefer my taxi to be automatic.

Especially if it’s cheaper. How much of a taxi driver’s cost goes to maintaining the car, and how much to the driver and the driver’s managers? Only the maintenance cost remains with driverless cars. All of the costs that come with hiring and maintaining drivers disappear.

How much of the inconvenience of taking a taxi goes to finding one when you need one, with a driver who is reliable enough to get you where you need to go on time?

Driverless cars also solve several other parking issues. Imagine parking your car in the 15-minute loading zone right out front of where you need to be… and it’s programmed to leave and find a better parking space on its own, and return when you need it.

Or instead of leaving your car in the airport parking lot, you drive to the airport, get out in front of the terminal, and your car drives itself home, parks itself in your garage, and comes to pick you up a week or two later, knowing from your phone that you just landed and will be out front in about fifteen minutes?

Discretely and with quiet strength: the Underwood Champion Portable—Tuesday, February 28th, 2017
Underwood Champion

Beware: typewriters are a gateway drug into whiskey-drinking, cigar-smoking, and fedora-wearing.

The typewriter is one of two mass inventions that made the modern age. Without the typewriter there is no personal computer. And the typewriter in its day meant clear and readable, precise communication between individuals. It also meant the modern novel and the modern author, who writes books by the sheet and box-load. The typewriter meant mass-producing authors and not just books. In this way, the typewriter also created the modern reader, by making it possible to stock large bookstores.

If I had my choice, I wrote six years ago, I’d get a typewriter that looked like the Underwood No. 5. It looks vaguely like one of those over-cerebral aliens with huge foreheads. It leaves no question that it’s a serious machine.

A little over a year ago, browsing through the San Diego swap meet, I met a different Underwood, a portable Champion. It’s much sleeker than the No. 5 and I immediately began revisiting what I really wanted in a typewriter. I had envisioned the No. 5 as more of a decoration than a tool, but the Champion looked like something I might actually use. By the time I finished wandering the swap meet, I had decided to try: I offered the dealer a much lower amount than the asking price, in cash, and walked out with my first, and still only, typewriter.

Until this, I never really used a typewriter to write. In grade school everything was handwritten (to the chagrin of the nuns) and in high school, I tried, once, to type a paper on my mom’s undersized plastic portable, but it was easier to write a word processor on my TRS-80 and type there. The keyboard was nicer, and the output was more readable.1

I took typing in high school one semester, but it was all practice. I don’t even remember if the typewriters in that classroom were available for typing papers for other classes. As I recall, it never occurred to me to ask.2

Why government-funded cancer research is dangerously unlike the Manhattan Project—Wednesday, October 12th, 2016
Nagasaki mushroom cloud

Congratulations! Your cancer has been destroyed.

One of the problems that came to light with the Epipen scandal is that companies are allowed to take taxpayer money for research without making the results of their research open and free for use by all.1 No government-funded research should be hidden from the public. If a researcher wants to hide their data sets, they should not take taxpayer money. And it isn’t just health care companies doing this—academic researchers do it all the time, too.

Maintaining a strong separation between public and private spheres is a very conservative idea, and a vitally important one for technological advancement, such as improving medicine. It’s part of what President Eisenhower meant when he warned us against the domination of the nation’s scholars by a scientific-technological elite:

A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government… Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity… The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

The massive amount of money that government can throw at a problem makes it very difficult for researchers to look at solutions that compete with what government bureaucrats think is the right path. It’s very difficult to follow an innovative path if it means foregoing hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars in grants. The least we can do to overcome that tendency for government funding to encourage monopolies in both the market and in research is make sure that government funding does not result in government-created monopolies on the results of the research funded.

Verbatim Bluetooth Folding Keyboard—Tuesday, October 11th, 2016
Verbatim Bluetooth Folding Keyboard

The Verbatim folding keyboard provides a fairly standard keyboard, at near-standard sizes. The main problem is that half-width SHIFT key on the right.

While it seems to have been sadly discontinued, the three-in-one solar-powered Logitech K760 that I reviewed in A Tale of Two Keyboards is still going strong. The iWerkz has, sadly, developed problems. Some of the keys don’t work unless I play at the keyboard every time I turn it on, and some of the keys never do start working during some sessions.

I’m pretty sure that the problems were battery-related. I’ve gotten so used to the durability of built-in batteries on Apple products that I forget, sometimes, why people like to be able to change batteries out. Because they lose power over time. The iWerkz customer support people were very responsive, but, as a writer, I need to have a keyboard that works not one that I can get working if I try hard enough.

So when I went looking for a replacement, I specifically looked for a keyboard with replaceable batteries. That’s a tall order, because portable keyboards also need to be small. This Verbatim folding Bluetooth keyboard solves the problem by putting the two AA batteries into a ridge on the left, that folds over into a groove on the right.

The Verbatim does not come with a handy iPad/iPhone stand. It does have a slide-out stand for iPhones, but it’s designed for older iPhones with the wider pin connector: the slide-out has a dummy piece of plastic sized to fit into the wide pin connector and hold the iPhone up that way. It won’t work with newer iPhones, and it won’t work with iPads, newer or older. While the older iPads also have that connector, the slide-out stand won’t support the greater weight of the iPad. Rather than a plastic case that doubles as an iPad/iPhone stand, as the iWerkz ingeniously has, the Verbatim comes with a leather-like pouch to protect the folded keyboard from battering while traveling.

The lack of a stand doesn’t bother me, because I already have an articulated stand that I occasionally used when using the Logitech with the iPad.

“Top Shelf” Classic movies for Apple TV—Thursday, May 26th, 2016

“Watch classic TV shows and movies recommended just for you. Classix has something for everyone. There’s even cartoons and movies just for kids with family-friendly entertainment.”

Classix is a nice app; the only problems I see are that (a) it doesn’t seem to let you rate movies, despite showing a star rating in the description, and (b) it doesn’t seem to share the watch list automatically between iOS devices. But it has some great old (public domain) movies and it makes it easy to browse and watch them.

This is pretty cool. Brian J. Coleman wrote a “Netflix for classic movies”, by which he means public domain movies. I’ve downloaded his Classix app for Apple TV and it’s pretty good; I’ve already watched House on Haunted Hill with Vincent Price. But he’s also blogged about how to write Apple TV applications. One of the things that’s nice about his app compared to too many others—including some from Apple—is that he populates the “top shelf” with recent movie updates. And he has a blog entries showing developers how to work with video, including how to populate the top shelf, with Swift code.

There is no excuse for not populating the top shelf with useful information. Especially apps that frequently update, such as Apple’s own podcast app or the YouTube app.

Coleman’s sample code makes me want to find something to program myself and sideload onto my Apple TV.

Review of the TRS-80 Model 100/200—Tuesday, May 24th, 2016
FullSizeRender for Model 100 from 1916

The TRS-80 Model 100, keyboard and 8-line screen.

I’ve just acquired a TRS-80 Model 100 and I’m taking the giant risk of typing up this review on the Model 100 itself. So far it’s been retaining data when powered off for an hour or so, but how it will hold out when turned off for the 8 or so hours it takes to drive from Michigan to Missouri, and then the 14 or so from Missouri to Texas, I guess I’ll find out.

The manual is unclear on whether the AA batteries, which last for 20 hours of actual use, also assist the NiCAD when the unit is turned off. The NiCAD is probably the original and may or may not be working at all. It doesn’t bode well that unplugging the unit from AC power after installing fresh AA batteries resulted in the unit powering off (though with no data loss). It did not switch seamlessly over to battery power as a modern computer would do.

As a portable computer, this must have been astounding at the time. It has the built-in, simple, word processor that I’m using to type this (it’s more of what we today would call a text editor), an address book, and a scheduler.

The address book and scheduler are literally managed by using the word processor to edit text files; the address book and scheduler apps merely search through the text files, which have completely freeform formatting rules. That is, none.

“Try to keep the record format consistent. For example, you might list the date first, followed by the time, then the location, and finally a comment about the event.”

The Model 100 also has BASIC built in, and BASIC programs can access all of the text files, making this a sort of hard-wired Editorial. That is, you can manipulate your text using BASIC programs that you write or purchase. There is no spell-checker built-in, for example, but I’d be willing to bet that there were spell-checkers available for purchase.

Interestingly, there is very little “save”-ing. Word processor files are automatically saved when exiting the app, and even BASIC files are automatically saved once you give them a name. Trying to save a BASIC program after you’ve named it results in an error: all that is necessary to save is to exit BASIC. Further, file extensions are handled almost automatically: you don’t need to specify extensions when loading or saving word processor, scheduler, or address book files, or even BASIC files. The system appends the correct extension automatically. Only when deleting files do you need to know the extension.

File management is handled through BASIC. There is no rename command, that I can find, but to delete a file you kill it in BASIC.

Insecurity Questions enable harassment and abuse—Wednesday, April 27th, 2016
You are talking to a stalker

I bet they’d still let them in if the stalker called with a good sob story about being stalked.

I complain a lot about insecurity questions in other articles about organizations wanting to rely solely on them and not on human intelligence. For example, wanting banks to ignore that the person owning the account is listed as a woman but the voice is clearly a man’s.

The reason insecurity questions suck so much is that they don’t just enable hackers to persecute us. Most of us live in the serene knowledge that we are too inconsequential to matter to hackers, and even when hackers randomly choose one person to steal money from, we’re still just one in three hundred million in the United States, and one in seven billion in the world. The odds, we think, are in our favor.1

Insecurity questions suck because they enable easy hacking by precisely the people we do have to worry about: the abusive ex-boyfriend, the crazy ex-girlfriend with a penchant for boiling rabbits, the stalker, the shady brother-in-law who is always in debt. Insecurity questions rely on personal information that are already known by the people we most have to worry about. Even those answers that are not widely known among our acquaintances are easily knowable simply by engaging in normal conversation among our web of friends. And the people you have to worry about have access to the edges of your web of friends. All they have to do is innocently start talking about high school to someone they know went to high school with you, and they’ve got your high school. Your pet’s name probably has already been posted to Facebook and is easily accessible by a friend of a friend who is not your friend at all.

The entire reason for insecurity questions is so that someone who does not have your password can reset your password without having to talk to a human. The selling point is that they are for helping you when you don’t have your password. But they’re just as useful for anyone else who also doesn’t have your password.

Safari 9.1 frees your browser from JavaScript lockup—Friday, April 1st, 2016

This is not an April Fools’ post. I got mine in early. From my testing using the links in the parent post, Safari no longer blocks closing a tab or window when it displays a JavaScript alert as of at least Safari 9.1. Close Window and Close Tab are available from the File menu, and the close button is available on both the browser window and the tab in the browser window.

Further, they’ve changed the appearance of the JavaScript alert to look like it comes from the web page rather than from the browser or operating system; that is, JavaScript alerts no longer look like they’re official.

They’ve removed the checkbox to no longer show alerts that used to show up on the second iteration of the alert.

Older posts.